Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Music Man—Journey Theater Arts Group—Margo Hunt Center, University of Portland

Changing Times
 
Meredith Willson’s terrific musical opened last night and will play through August 18th.  It is directed by Kristi L. Foster, choreographed by Samantha Newhall and musical direction by James Pick.  For further information go to www.journeytheater.org or call 360-750-8550.

Gone are the days of ice cream socials, covered bridges, gas lamps, barbershop quartets, silent movies, horse-drawn carriages, and band concerts in the park.  Soon, such things as libraries, book stores, movie theaters and post offices may follow suit.  “Times are a-changin’” and, in my opinion, not necessarily for the better.  Ray Bradbury and Rod Serling waxed poetic about the “good ole days.”  So it’s grand to be transported for a couple hours plus, to a simpler era via The Music Man.

This was Mr. Willson’s only great triumph on Broadway.  His only other original musical, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, was a modest success.  The Music Man made a huge star, both on Broadway and film, of Robert Preston.  Matthew Broderick was in a rather weak TV version and Donald O’Connor even played it in Portland.  With over 20 unforgettable songs and dances, a live orchestra and a cast of over 60, this is a real delight!

The story is simple enough.  A con man, Prof. Harold Hill (Chris Bartell), comes to a small Iowa town during the early 1900’s, intent on fleecing these simple rubes of their monies, and ends up being smitten and transformed himself.  His con, to convince the townsfolk that they need a boy’s band to clean up the rough elements in their fair town of River City, Iowa.  And, not knowing a lick of music himself, he introduces the Think System, in which you don’t have to practice music, all you have to do is think it and it will come out.

But he doesn’t reckon on falling for the local librarian, Marion (Holly Counts).  Nor does he anticipate the local Mayor Shinn (Dave Robinson) taking an instant dislike to him and suspecting him at the get-go of tomfoolery.  And the townsfolk, stubborn and unwelcoming as they seem from the beginning, gradually warm up to his machinations and fall under his spell.  But goodness will out and the darkness will be illuminated in the end.

Willson’s songs and lyrics are extraordinary throughout.  And this cast does it justice.  The direction, by Foster, is nothing short of astounding, having to traffic more than sixty people onstage, many of them teens or younger, and having to coach believable performances out of them as well.  And this is done with style to every person onstage, no matter the size of the part.  Also, Pick and his musicians do justice to the tricky score.

And, exemplary, is Newhall’s choreography.  To have gathered so many people into dance numbers, many, I assume, not having any extensive training, is amazing.  The numerous dance numbers are all very well executed, having the look of professionals.  Also kudos must go to the costumer, Anne Dunlop, for clothing the large cast in appropriate period  wear.  There seemed to be some glitches in the set changes, lighting and miking at times but I’m sure this was just opening night flubs, that were minor, and will be corrected with practice.

There is no doubt that Preston was the definitive Hill but Bartell creates his own stamp on the role.  He is a somewhat gentler Hill but that makes it easier to believe that his character can change with just some subtle nudging.  And he does fine in the singing and dancing departments, too, especially the difficult “Ya got Trouble” song and the rousing “76 Trombones.”  And Counts, as Marian, is a singing sensation.  Her operatic voice is a terrific asset to her songs, especially “My White Knight” (cut from the movie version).

Really also loved the Barbershop Quartet (David Jacquet, Jeffrey A. McHenry, Tim Ackerman and Dean Waters).  If they aren’t a foursome in real life, they should be.  And the featured children, Aida Valentine (Amaryllis) and Josiah Bartell (Winthrop), were very appealing, especially Bartell, in his song, “Gary, Indiana.”  A very winning performance.  He is a star waiting to happen.

The show is magic from a by-gone era.  A time when people actually communicated in person with one another.  A time of old-fashioned American values and forgotten lore.  A nostalgic trip down memory lane, perhaps to refresh what we are made of, and for.  Lest we forget…!

I recommend this show.  If you do go, please tell them Dennis sent you.  For another perspective go to


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